The fourth of the Ten Commandments is found in Exodus 20:8-11, encapsulated with “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy…” Some well-meaning Christians contend that this command is no longer applicable to us today because we are “not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14), and because some see Christ as the fulfillment of this law per Colossians 2:16-17: “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.“
Is this all there is to consider in relation to the Sabbath command however? How are we to understand the Sabbath in today’s context? There are several complementing truths to consider regarding this question.
Jesus Christ Is Our Rest
It certainly is true that the sabbath is meant to point us to Christ as our great rest, our great salvation! Jesus urges in Matthew 11:28-29: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
A Sabbath Principle Still Exists
The Scriptures also seem to indicate that a sabbath principle still exists. Notice that in both Exodus and Deuteronomy this is the longest-worded of the Ten Commandments, partly because Scripture gives bolstering specifics and explanation, including: 1) that God rested on the seventh day after six days of creation (Genesis 2:1-3), and 2) that the Sabbath was to reflect God’s special redemption of Israel (Deuteronomy 5:15).
The Sabbath is meant to be a regular reminder to us that God is the source of godliness.
Both of these motivations for keeping the sabbath seem clearly to encompass more than just a ceremonial law observance — God’s creation and hallowing of the sabbath predates the law, and the theme of redemption extends beyond it.
Of course, Jesus himself observed the Sabbath, and gave positive instruction regarding it. Perhaps this is because it was meant, like all commandments, to point us to our need of God and his redemption in Christ; in fact, God specifically says one purpose of the Sabbath is “that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you” (Exodus 31:13). It is meant to be a regular reminder to us that God is the source of godliness and, in New Testament terms, that we need regular communion with Christ in order to be Christians.
Like having to sleep every night to stay healthy, we need a weekly rest for our body and mind and spirit. We need a regular reminder to pull aside from the cares and obligation of our daily lives and instead focus on Christ, his Word, and the rest we have in him.
Most Christians Observe the Lord’s Day
Most Christians have continued this weekly cycle of six days of work and one of worship, but with some significant changes from the Old Testament. Of course, it is now observed on a different day (Sunday now, the first day of the week) because Christ rose on the first day (John 20:19; Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:1-2), and so it is also called “the Lord’s Day” (Revelation 1:10).
This change of day is not only indicated in the New Testament itself, but by very early Christian writings including the Epistle of Barnabas (AD 120) and the writings of Justin Martyr (AD 140) and Clement of Alexandria (AD 194). The ceremonial restrictions have ended because all ceremonial law pointed to Christ; along with this, of course, the capital punishment for transgressions of the law (or the civic law) has ended, just as they have for the fifth command to honor mother and father.
So How Do We Obey the Fourth Command Today?
The Lord’s Day should not be like every other day, including Saturday. In the biblical sense Saturday is still working at secular, daily, or mundane tasks (e.g. mowing the yard, painting the house, etc.). And, as one Bible student observes: “The sabbath is not simply a rest from labor, but it is a rest unto the Lord. We can lie in the bed all day on Sunday and not keep the sabbath holy … because we have neither turned our attention to the Lord nor been thankful for His salvation!”
Make it pleasurable for you and your family to enjoy and focus on Jesus in a special way, each Lord’s Day.
Of course any law can be taken legalistically and miss the heart of it; but instead use this day to help your family see their own weakness, need for rest and that Christ is our strength. Some may not be able to observe Sunday as a day of rest every week due to work or other obligations, but you can still keep a day “holy” and pull aside to spend special time with Christ in communion and fellowship with him.
More than just a list of do’s and don’ts, Jesus later summarizes all the law in terms of love.
A pastor friend of mine purposefully makes the Lord’s Day as pleasant, enjoyable, and exciting as possible for his family — a day they all look forward to together. It often includes camping out on a pallet in the living room together, talking about the Lord purposefully and joyfully, reading a good Christian biography together, visiting the sick and needy, or enjoying time together at a park on a sunny Sunday.
Remember: more than just a list of do’s and don’ts, Jesus later summarizes all the law in terms of love. So, we might well approach each of these as an answer to this question first and foremost: How can I better love God and love my neighbor?
The answer here, in the fourth commandment, is that we can love God with our time (perhaps our most precious possession in today’s hurried society), our focused attention in a world abounding with distractions, and our energy (which will include both recharging our spiritual batteries and serving God/others).